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Classical Notes

No victory for di-di-dit-dah

Posted at 9:07 AM on December 28, 2006 by John Zech
Filed under: The blog

The opening notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony have been described as "Fate knocking at the door." It just so happens that the pattern of 3 short notes followed by one long corresponds to the Morse code for the letter "V." During WWII Winston Churchill was famous for giving the two-fingered salute of "V is for Victory," and in June of 1941, the BBC began using the opening of Beethoven's 5th as a theme for radio shows beamed across Europe to boost morale during the Second World War.

So it was with some chagrin that I read yesterday in the New York Times that amateur radio operators will no longer be required to learn Morse Code as part of their test. My uncle George was a very active "ham" radio operator all of his life. He and my dad built their own "crystal sets" when they were kids in the 1920s. George went on to get his EE degree and built a radio that filled most of one bedroom of his house. When I was a kid I remember watching with awe and wonder as he fired up the tubes of his transmitter and made connections with other "hams" overseas.

George had the most advanced license an amateur could get, he was a master of Morse, and I'm sure he would agree with many of the die hards that dropping Morse code is just the first step off the slippery slope. What next? A dime novel hidden in the corncrib? Jokes from "Cap'n Billy's Whizzbang? You got Trouble, my friend!

Do you remember the great PBS Mystery series "Inspector Morse." Well, Barrington Pheloung, who wrote the haunting theme for the show, not only spelled out M-O-R-S-E in the rhythm of the theme, but in later shows started putting the name of the murderer into the title theme in Morse code rhythm - and then later again, as a red herring, the names of people who were NOT the murderer, just to fool anyone who might have cracked the code. Those Brits!

Of course, composers have hidden messages in their music for centuries, often using names or words as themes (eg. B-A-C-H). In his "Messagesquisse," Pierre Boulez put the name of his dedicatee, Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, in Morse code in the cello part--and then he repeated it in various anagrams. You can read a lot more about this interesting subject in a learned article by Dmitri N. Smirnov called "Music and Morse code."

But perhaps this is a good time to come full circle, because it was a hundred years ago, almost to the day, when the Canadian experimenter, Reginald A. Fessenden, achieved what is widely regarded as the first example of voice (and music) transmission over radio. That's the starting point of a fascinating new documentary called "Hearing America: A Century of Music on the Radio," from American Radio Works.